When beginning to explore the concept of soundscapes, the idea of plants listening to music is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, plants and animals are inherently impacted by the sonic landscape created by both nature and humans. Yet this idea of plants being affected by music is something regarded more like a pseudoscience, or ideas based falsely in what is believed to be science. While some claim that plants grow differently when exposed to music, there are others who completely scoff at the notion. Though there exists a happy medium between the two, people tend to stick to one opinion or the other, refusing to even consider the opposite side. To demonstrate this middle ground, I will begin by outlining the scientific method and delineating between science and pseudoscience. With these concepts made clear, I will apply them to existing research studies to show how animals and plants are treated differently, and finally demonstrate that there is a possible mechanism behind sound’s affect on plants.
To begin, the concept of the scientific method needs to be outlined. In practice, it is a way of achieving a possible explanation for what occurs in the physical world. Though these possible explanations may be reached via different routes of experimentation, they must still arrive at the same conclusion (Gauch 406). This not only requires completing an experiment with independent variables ideally limited to one (Gauch 406), but also looking at the experiment in context with the world as a whole (Gauch 6). As outlined by Thomas S. Kuhn, an influential scientific philosopher, a good theory outlined by the scientific method should be accurate, consistent in nature, applicable (having a “broad scope”), making seemingly confusing phenomena simpler and orderly, and adding to what is already accepted by the scientific community (Kuhn 75). So, in short, a good scientific method is logical, limits factors other than the variable being investigated, and provides support for an overarching theory applicable to the natural world.
Speaking to scientific theories and laws, they are overarching concepts that apply to the natural world as a whole and are accepted by the scientific community. These are truths, or statements that “correspond with reality” (Gauch 31). If they are not true, then they are not scientific, as science has four claims: “rationality, truth, objectivity, and realism” (Gauch 40). Science must be rational, using reason and evidence to find truth, and the truths determined must correspond with reality. It must be objective, with the truths being determined via physical experimentation. It must also be realistic, with ideas corresponding to reality as a whole. When statements stray from these claims, then they are no longer considered scientific in nature. It is when we consider these sorts of claims that we stumble into the concept of pseudoscience.
As outlined by the late Karl Popper, a world-renowned scientific philosopher, science and pseudoscience are separated by science’s use of “empirical [scientific] method” (Popper 15). More specifically, Popper explains that it is a “problem as one of distinguishing between a genuinely empirical method and a non-empirical method or even a pseudo-empirical method… a method which… appeals to observation and experiment… [but] does not come up to scientific standards (Popper 15). He sums the concept up nicely as it pertains to my upcoming argument: that pseudoscience also includes those theories and conclusions drawn from faulty scientific method.
Given this delineation of science and pseudoscience via the scientific method, we can begin to explore studies on plants and animals individually. Starting with plants, we can trace the idea of plants being impacted by music almost directly back to the book The Secret Life of Plants, originally published in 1973. This novel spans a variety of pseudoscientific ideas pertaining to plants, including plants reacting to music. It claims that plant growth is impacted positively by certain types of music and negatively by other types, citing various research studies without much background on them. For example, it notes in one experiment that plants were exposed to ragas, or “South Indian devotional songs”, and that in these plants “the number of stomata per unit area in the experimental plants was 66 percent higher, the epidermal walls were thicker, the palisade cells were longer and broader than in control plants…” (Tompkins 147). It continues to cite research studies like this often, and as one article points out these “two reasonable authors advance so many patently false, unprovable, or impossible conclusions… by ignoring all the ordinary rules of evidence and by damning, circumventing, or flouting the scientific method whenever it serves their purpose to do so” (Galston 415). This quote potently points out the fallacy in this book: it’s tendency to neglect any evidence contrary to the claims they are trying to make. This neglect connects directly back to the objectivity that science must have; by ignoring objective studies that do not pertain to their claims, the authors of the novel no longer have a scientific claim.
Yet, despite the holes in its scientific presentation, The Secret Life of Plants had a significant impact on people’s perception of plants and how they “listen” to music. It provided the basis for a documentary, which in turn featured an album by Stevie Wonder that would ultimately become Journey through the Secret Life of Plants. More than that, it prompted a new way of thinking. People were and still are incredibly taken with the idea that plants could be affected by music in a similar fashion to us. In fact, sites like YouTube are littered with videos containing music to “help your plants grow!!” In just a few minutes I was able to put together a decent playlist of these types of videos. This fascination seems to stem from a combination of natural human curiosity, the use of sensationalism on the authors’ parts, and the seemingly scientific presentation of the information. The information that The Secret Life of Plants presents seems to not only be scientific in nature, but also have an abundance of research studies to back up the claims. By appearing to present a scientific backing behind an interesting, but mainly radical, idea, it was able to foster this preoccupation with plant growth being influenced by music.
When it comes to this concept, The Secret Life of Plants is not necessarily the only pseudoscientific piece presenting itself as pure science. A few research studies in accredited scientific journals still seemed to have underlying issues with them, ultimately causing them to be pseudoscientific. For example, one study observed Chinese cabbage and cucumbers subjected to either “green music” (meditative music), 20 kHz of “continuous wave ultrasound”, or natural noise (Qin 407). Researchers tested the levels of organic compounds in plants, known as polyamines, as well as oxygen intake and vitamin C levels, all possible indicators of growth in plants. These plants were tested as seedlings after 15 days, and then again after 70 days. Overall, it was found that the “green music exposure… resulted in the highest growth rate and fresh weight” in the Chinese cabbage, and both sonic environments seemed to positively impact the growth of the plants (ibid 408). Though the study itself was thorough in its execution, it doesn’t justify how the music impacted the plants, nor does it give any explanation as to possible mechanisms behind what occurred. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Ultrasonics, which adds some weight to the work done, and could explain the hesitancy of the researchers to make any hasty conclusions. As a peer-reviewed source, the editors would be unwilling to publish any conclusions made without sufficient evidence. Given the lack of explanation, however, this study falls under the clichéd ‘correlation does not equate to causation’. The source itself may be effective in demonstrating the results of the research, but gives no real weight to information gathered.
Another example of this is a study that seems promising at first. It sets up the experiment with five “acoustically shielded, thermally insulated, dark, humid growth chambers” (Creath 113) used to germinate okra and zucchini seeds. Of the experiments analyzed, this experiment is the most effective at limiting external factors that I have seen. However, it quickly loses its credibility when it outlines how “conditions compared were a treated control, musical sound, pink noise, and healing energy” (Creath 113). Not only are these variables general, even when described in more detail in the experiment, but it also outlines healing energy as one of them. This specific variable called for, among other things “consciously connecting to the seeds [and] asking for energetic structures to enable this” (Creath 116). So, despite the careful methodology outlined and followed in limiting variables, this study undermines its scientific credibility by being irrational and unrealistic. There is a reason that it is not feasible to will your plants to grow or other scientific phenomena to happen. Without any sort of mechanism explaining why it could impact plant growth, the study completely neglects the whole point of the scientific method: to further the scientific theories and laws already accepted by the scientific community as a whole.
In contrast, the studies looking at animals in the same field are much more scientifically sound. For example, one study on auditory stimulation on gorillas effectively exposed gorillas to auditory stimulation, while reducing other factors, and still managed to obtain results. It also analyzed the implications this research could have given its limitations (i.e. its analysis of captive gorillas), and reported results that went against what most people might think, such as gorillas responding better to ecologically non-relevant sounds (Wells 331). More importantly, it alludes to a mechanism that would allow for the gorillas to be impacted: their auditory system, noting that the noises are “certain types of auditory stimulation” (Wells 331). Any studies investigating animals’ reactions to music involve the auditory system to some degree, drawing comparisons to the human auditory system and psychological state as it connects to the system. Even a study on carp reacting to light or music draws this comparison, noting a possible mechanism by outlining how their “auditory sense is based on detection of sound pressure” (Papoutsoglou 61). Though fish have a completely different way of processing music than humans, we have no issue imagining this. It is only when there is no explicit auditory system that we struggle to comprehend how sound could affect something.
(Diagram of a dog’s auditory system ~ via merckvetmanual.com/)
It is this lack of a distinct auditory system in plants that often causes the general scientific community to react to this concept as a pseudoscience. In contrast to this belief, there is evidence to show that plants could respond to music despite lacking any outward auditory system. One paper suggests that different sound waves of varying frequencies and intensities can alter plant cell structures, particularly “low frequency ultrasound” (Silva 140). Printed in the Journal Plant Cell, Tissue, and Organ Culture, the paper should carry some weight in the scientific community. Likewise, the recently published Plant Sensing and Communication states that plants can absorb sound waves, and that “exposure of seeds and young plants to ultrasound… causes changes in plant chemistry” (Karban 28-9). This book makes no absurd statements, later even noting that the knowledge on the sensory systems in plants is severely lacking, and tries to explain a mechanism for plants responding to sound rather than list unverifiable sources like The Secret Life of Plants. Then again, in Research in Plant Disease, it notes “sound waves with appropriate length of action time and proper intensity or frequency are known to stimulate cell growth in some plants” (Chowdhury 2). The list goes on, but its safe to say that there is scientific backing behind the idea that plants could be impacted by sound waves as a whole.
Given these scientific sources, it is interesting that the scientific community seems somewhat hesitant to consider music affecting plants as more than a pseudoscience. Even when the possibility of it improving or impeding plant growth via the sound wave mechanism is suggested, the studies executed on plants do not meet the standards set for the scientific method. Whether the explanation following the study is missing, or the study itself incorporates pseudoscientific variables, they do not do enough to garner real scientific merit. If plants had auditory systems like animals, this would not be the case. Instead, we struggle to comprehend how they could perceive the musical soundscape through a differently.
All this information taken into account, it is difficult to choose either “side” of the debate on plants and their reaction to music. Like many things in life, both sides make compelling arguments at times, at least when they’re following a viable train of thought. So I stick to the gray area between. I neither think the growth of plants is undoubtedly impacted by music nor completely unaffected. It may just be that plants are reacting to the sonic environment rather than the type of music itself. Even given this possibility, there is no definitive evidence to support playing Mozart or meditative music for plants will help them grow. What is definitive for all these studies being cited is that the plants tested were undoubtedly being given the water, sunlight, and nutrients they would need to flourish. No plant is going to go undernourished while being studied. So really, whether the plant seems to enjoy classical tunes or perks up to The Beatles, the traditional water and sunlight for it might just do the trick.
Chowdhury, Emran Khan, Hyoun-Sub Lim, and Hanhong Bae. 2014. “Update on the Effects of Sound Wave on Plants.” Research in Plant Disease 20 (1): 1-7.
Creath, K and Schwartz, GE. 2004. “Measuring Effects of Music, Noise, and Healing Energy Using a Seed Germination Bioassay.” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 10 (1): 113-122.
Galston, Arthur W. 1974. “Commentary: The Unscientific Method. By Ignoring Accepted Rules of Evidence, the Authors of a Popularized Book on Plants Reach Many False Conclusions.” BioScience 24 (7): 415-416.
Gauch, Hugh G. 2003. Scientific Method in Practice. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.
Karban, Richard. 2015. “Plant Sensing of Temperature, Electricity, and Sound.” Plant Sensing and Communication. Chicago, Illinois, United States. The University of Chicago Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1977. “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice.” Arguing About Science, ed. Alexander Bird and James Ladyman, 74-86. New York, NY, United States. Routledge.
Papoutsoglou, S.E., N. Karakatsouli, E. Louizos, S. Chadio, C. Dalla, A. Polissidis, and Z. Papadopoulou-Daifoti. 2007. “Effect of Mozart’s Music (Romanze-Andante of “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik”, Sol Major, K525) Stimulus on Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio L.) physiology under different light conditions.” Aquacultural Engineering 36 (1): 61-72.
Popper, Karl. 2002. “Science: Conjectures and Refutations.” Arguing About Science, ed. Alexander Bird and James Ladyman, 15-43. New York, NY, United States. Routledge.
Qin, Yu-Chuan, Won-Chu Lee, Young-Cheol Choi, and Tae-Wan Kim. 2003. “Biochemical and Physiological Changes in Plants as a Result of Different Sonic Exposures.” Ultrasonics 41 (5): 407-411.
Teixeira de Silva, Jaime A. and Judit Dobránszki. 2014. “Sonication and Ultrasound: Impact on Plant Growth and Development.” Plant Cell, Tissue, and Organ Culture 117 (2): 131-143.
Tompkins, Peter and Bird, Christopher. 1972. The Secret Life of Plants, 145-162. New York, NY, United States. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Wells, Deborah L. 2006. “A Note on the Effect of Auditory Stimulation on the Behaviour and Welfare of Zoo-Housed Gorillas.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100 (3-4): 327-332.